How can Mexico break the cycle of violence?

VOICES.NEWS- Criminal violence in Mexico has swept back into the headlines, staining the streets of the country with blood. The country&#...

VOICES.NEWS-Criminal violence in Mexico has swept back into the headlines, staining the streets of the country with blood. The country's new administration, led by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is facing its first major security crisis. This time, however, the country is not threatened by another turf war between cartels, but instead an open confrontation between a cartel and the federal government.

On the afternoon of October 17, the Mexican army detained Ovidio Guzman, son of the infamous drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in the city of Culiacan. His detention led to violent retaliation from the Sinaloa cartel, which set up roadblocks in different areas of Culiacan and engaged in shootouts with security forces.

The hitmen attacked the facilities of the Ninth Military Zone, where the families of the military personnel involved in the operation reside. After two hours of skirmishes, the security cabinet of the president released Ovidio Guzman. "In the desire to obtain a positive result, [the ministerial police] acted in a precipitous manner, with insufficient planning and a lack of awareness of the consequences," stated Mexican Secretary of Defence General Luis Cresencio Sandoval.

The final toll of the clashes between the cartel and the army was 14 dead, including four civilians. Additionally, amid the confusion, a riot broke out at the nearby prison of Aguaruto, where two guards were killed and 49 prisoners escaped.

The level of violence in Mexico has reached record levels in the last few years, and its growth seems unstoppable. According to Mexico's National Statistics Institute, there were 35,964 murders in 2018, making it the most violent year in modern Mexican history. Criminal violence first surged in 2006 when President Felipe Calderon declared a so-called "war on drugs".

Before President Calderon's administration, Mexico experienced roughly 10,000 homicides per year on average, less than a third of the present figure. Not only has the violence skyrocketed since 2006, but the number of cartels has also increased from six to 37, generating total estimated revenues of $29bn. The dramatic increase in the number of cartels and criminal groups operating in Mexico is largely due to President Calderon's policy, which focused almost exclusively on arresting the leaders of the cartels, fragmenting the previously consolidated criminal groups.

Today, Mexican policymakers are divided between those who propose violently cracking down on drug cartels and those who propose a peace agreement. Both strategies, however, are limited. On the one hand, the Mexican state must not tolerate criminal groups or their activities. On the other hand, the government cannot risk a further increase in violence in the country.

The war on drugs is nothing like a conventional warfare. In the war on crime, there is not one single enemy, there are many, and these enemies do not wear uniforms. A drug cartel will never "surrender" like a conventional state. Cartels are highly fluid, and they easily fragment, atomise, and reorganise according to the conditions of their environment (arrests, internal divisions, death of the leadership, etc). Wars are expected to finish, at some point, but organised crime has no end. It will always exist. The only effect of the war on organised crime has been to plunge Mexico into a cycle of interminable violence.

Considering that the "war" on cartels is clearly a failed strategy, how viable is a peace process? First of all, the government would need to negotiate 37 different peace deals, one for each cartel and criminal group, which is essentially impossible. Add to this the volatile instability of the cartels and it becomes clear that a pact - such as a treaty to end the war - is impossible to reach. Any agreement with a criminal group will inevitably be short-lived. At some point, the chronic inefficiency of the municipal police and the justice system will allow the cartels to expand their margins of autonomy, further crippling the authority of the Mexican state.

At the present stage, neither peace nor war is a viable solution. The Mexican state is too weak to wage an infinite war against numerous cartels, yet is also too weak to set the conditions for an eventual peace negotiation.

In order to emerge from this stalemate, Mexico must reverse the balance of power that currently favours the drug cartels by strengthening its institutions. The Mexican justice system has an extremely high rate of impunity - 99.3 percent. Trust in the justice system is so low that only 10 percent of crimes are reported to the authorities, and of these, only 14 percent result in a conviction. In Mexico, there are only six public prosecutors per 100,000 citizens, and they are very poorly paid.

The chronic shortage of personnel causes huge delays in court cases, with some people jailed for up to 15 years pending trial. Another major problem is the shortage of medical examiners, which makes it very hard to acquire forensic evidence for trials. And the prison system is just as dysfunctional as the court system. The strength of the drug cartels does not come from their money or weapons, but rather from the weakness of Mexican public institutions.

In response to the ongoing security crisis, the current administration has adopted generous redistributive policies aimed at reducing the vulnerability of the most marginalised sectors of society. This is definitely an appropriate policy, however, its effects will only be reflected in the long term.

The government must elaborate a progressive strategy in order to address this emergency and ensure that it is not repeated. In the short term, the government should reinforce the operational capacity of its security forces and finally decide whether it will continue to use the army to conduct police operations or replace it with a civilian security force. In the medium term, Mexico must strengthen and reinforce its police, justice, and prison systems. Doing so is the only way out of this crisis.

The problem in Mexico is structural. The country will remain in a state of constant emergency until its institutions reduce the grey areas in which crime prospers. And the necessary changes will take much longer than the six years of a presidential mandate. It is not enough for this administration alone to implement the correct policies; the subsequent administration must ensure their continuity.

Mexico does not allow for presidential re-election, which jeopardises the ability to establish a clear, long-term strategy. That is why it is crucial for the Mexican political elite to converge on the need to strengthen public institutions and finally establish a common vision for the country.

Written by Nicola Morfini, a lecturer in the department of Politics and Sociology at IPADE Business School (Mexico City)



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